It wasn’t the first funeral service Willie was to take part in; it was just the first in a long while that he’d attended in a suit. Everything was still leading up to the burial, even the air. Willie clenched his arms, painfully aware of the sweat slowly pervading the button down under his black sports coat.
On one hand, the good weather a blessing. Today was the first day the sun managed to break through the rolling May clouds, but it did so with a white-hot fury. The morning heat index read 95; unseasonably warm for northern Vermont, but, not unheard of. Nearing noon, the sun blazed overhead turning the grass a near-neon shade of green and leaving scarce patches of shade. The rows of stones, which Willie knew by heart, shone like beacons with their polished granite.
Willie dabbed his forehead with his hankie and matted down wisps of white hair along his forehead. He watched from the shade of the caretaker shack as Mike Ryrson and Ralph Foreman, two of the town employees, worked the small backhoe to bore into the earth.
Mike worked under Willie most days on the upkeep of the cemetery and was used to this type of work. Willie had called in Ralph as back up. Ralph was a superb operator and Willie knew that today, of all days, he should stay out of the dirt. He knew what his daughter, Karen, would say if she were to show up and see Willie working. She would be more concerned with his appearance than the fact that he was 73 and still romping around in holes.
Willie watched a few more minutes before throwing his daughter’s imminent criticism’s to the wind. Those boys look like they could use some water, he thought to himself to drown out Karen’s voice. Willie walked to the back of the shed, collected three bottles of water from the miniature fridge, and walked out into the light.
Mike and Ralph were in the process of tarping dirt and rolling up sod when they turned to the sound of crunching gravel under Willie’s dress loafers.
“Hey Willie,” Mike said brushing the dirt from his work shirt. “Sorry to hear about Beth. She was a wonderful woman.”
Ralph matched the sentiment. “Yeah Willie. Mary and I are praying for ya.”
Willie dipped his head and pursed his cracked lips against his teeth. “Thanks boys. Say, this looks like hot work. I brought you two some water.” Willie said, handing each a bottle.
Mike thanked him and Ralph nodded, unscrewing the top and gulping down half the bottle. Willie walked to the edge of the hole and looked over. He felt a small surge of pride in Mike; it was a nice site, and well cornered.
“Nice hole, eh? You boys hit any moisture?” Willie said turning, his face twisting into a squint against the sun.
Mike nodded. “Nope. No water. Real fortunate considering it’s been rainin’ like a bitch the last couple o’ days. You have a nice site here Willie. Elevated and overlooking the gardens. Real pretty.”
Willie sighed and scanned the cemetery, taking in the calm heat. “Yeah,” he said turning back to Mike. “Beth and I came out and picked out this site, oh, ‘bout 15 years back. Back then there was no gardens. Come to think of it, there weren’t half as many sites either.”
Ralph picked up a shovel off the ground. “Town up and got old on us.”
Willie nodded. “Ain’t that the truth.”
Wille took a gulp from his bottle and sat down on the edge of the hole. He swung his left leg over the edge first, then the right, then lowered himself into the grave. Mike and Ralph looked on half consumed with confusion and half morose. Willie stood and put his arms up, bracing himself against the cool earth. Loose dirt tumbled over his fingers and fell onto his loafers. Willie inhaled sharply, drowning himself in the scent of decaying wood. He felt as if he were about to take root there.
After several moments Willie looked up to Mike and Ralph. “Good hole boys. Real good.” He sniffed back tears. “Now pull me out before Karen gets here and rips us all a new one.” He forced a laugh as Mike and Ralph each took a hand and hoisted him out of the deep grave.